ROANOKE — Experimental drones have been flying around Montgomery County and beyond as part of a Virginia Tech-led program for at least six months. So far, there have been no crashes, injuries, close calls or other safety issues.
That comes from Mark Blanks, director of Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, as Virginia officials deliver their latest progress report to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The White House-initiated Integration Pilot Program, or IPP, was designed to allow a group of hand-selected communities to see what they can do with drones under more relaxed regulations.
Participants report their findings back to the FAA, which will learn from the experiments and develop rules for future drone uses.
Virginia was selected in May, and Google’s sister company, Wing, made its first long-distance drone delivery as part of the program across rural Montgomery County three months later.
Since then, Blanks said Dominion Energy and State Farm are companies that have begun their own test flights under the IPP.
Some have been in Montgomery, including Wing’s beverage delivery to Sen. Mark Warner, R-Va. Others have ventured farther from Tech’s campus, like State Farm’s drones used to assess damage from Hurricane Florence.
The ultimate goal is to have all three up and running with larger commercial drone programs, delivering packages to real shoppers, collecting data for real insurance claims and searching for real downed power lines.
“I don’t expect that they will be there tomorrow,” Blanks said. “The process over the next couple of years is getting to that point.”
To date, the drone flights haven’t made a big splash or even been noticeable to most locals. But that should change over the next year and a half.
Before it does, Blanks said MAAP is planning outreach campaigns to make sure everyone knows the drones are coming and what they’ll be doing.
“People want to know. People don’t like the unknown,” he added.
MAAP has already begun talking with neighbors about concerns, from drone noise to privacy issues. Blanks expects much more of that as the program picks up steam.
“There will be concerns that will be raised, and we’ll need to address those,” he said. “I believe there are legitimate concerns and we have to address them and work through a solution.
“But I also believe the technology can bring a great benefit to the community.”
The IPP program ends in October 2020. Before then, Blanks hopes the program will move from mostly remote locations, such as Virginia Tech’s rural Kentland Farms, to more populated areas where drones will fly over and interact with real people.
The move into more urban settings is a primary goal for MAAP, but Blanks said researchers first have to prove it’s safe.
That’s what’s happening now, as MAAP’s corporate partners experiment to build better drones, Virginia Tech learns how to ensure safety and the FAA learns what it needs to see before allowing specific drone uses.
“We’re getting better and better at doing that and the FAA is getting better at understanding what they need to see to understand if something is safe or not,” Blanks said. “There’s definitely a learning curve for both sides, for the FAA and for us. And that’s why this program exists.”
The drone flights have slowed down during the colder months. Instead, MAAP’s team has been planning for future flights when the weather is more hospitable.
“This is the beginning of it. This is not the conclusion,” Blanks added. “We have much greater hopes for the program over the next year and a half.”